An update on COVID-19.

Plus, could Trump end up in jail?
Isaac Saul Dec 3, 2020
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free, subscribe for Friday editions and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 13 minutes.

The latest on COVID-19 and stimulus talks and a question about Trump facing criminal charges.

Utah Sen. Mitt Romney is among a group of Republicans working on a new bipartisan COVID-19 relief bill. Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr

A year ago…

We were discussing President Trump’s announcement he was revoking Bloomberg’s press credentials, speculating on how winning Iowa might change Pete Buttigieg’s chances in the presidential race.


Quick hits.

  1. In a rare moment from U.S. intelligence, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe is expected to issue a stark warning about China’s threat to the security of the United States today.
  2. President Trump released a 46-minute long video yesterday, making his loop of baseless allegations about the election being stolen and insisting it was “statistically impossible” for him to have lost to Joe Biden.
  3. Heather Boushey, one of Joe Biden’s top economic advisors, is facing accusations that she verbally abused staffers and was a notoriously bad manager in her last position at a think tank.
  4. Ivanka Trump was deposed by a Washington D.C. attorney general yesterday over a lawsuit alleging the misuse of inauguration funds.
  5. Democrat Mark Kelly was sworn into the Senate on Wednesday after defeating Martha McSally in a special election last month, marking the first time in 67 years that Arizona has had two Democratic senators.

What D.C. is talking about.

Coronavirus. The U.S. reported 3,157 COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday, according to a count by Johns Hopkins, the most ever in one day during the pandemic. There were more than 200,000 new cases for the second time ever and over 100,000 people are hospitalized with the virus for the first time since the pandemic began, according to the COVID Tracking Project. In sum: this is the most widespread and deadliest the virus has been so far in America. Nationally, 13.9 million people have been infected during the pandemic and 273,836 have died, according to the Johns Hopkins count. Here’s a glimpse at the data:

Data via COVID Tracking Project

The U.S. is now adding more than a million new cases a week, and Dr. Jennifer Nuzzi of Johns Hopkins told The Wall Street Journal it could be “on the order of that” over a few days if the exponential growth continues at this rate. Health care officials are also warning that they expect the numbers to continue to worsen in the wake of Thanksgiving day travel. The Centers for Disease Control is asking Americans to stay home for the Christmas holidays or, if they travel, to get tested before and after.

With the virus breaking new records, Congress is still trying to pass a second stimulus bill to address the pandemic. Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said a new, bipartisan stimulus package worth $908 billion would serve as a starting point to reopen negotiations with Senate Republicans. The comments inspired hope that a new deal in Congress could be coming before the new year, though seven months of continued failure to pass another stimulus is leaving few people confident.

Still, most lawmakers have agreed that coronavirus relief is necessary — they’ve just been miles apart on the price tag and priorities. The new bipartisan proposal includes $160 billion in state and local funding, a Democratic priority, and legal protections for businesses to reopen, a Republican priority. From The Wall Street Journal:

The proposed package also includes $288 billion for small-business relief, including for the Paycheck Protection Program, $16 billion for the distribution of a coronavirus vaccine, $82 billion for schools, $25 billion for rental assistance and $180 billion for additional unemployment insurance, including $300 a week through March, aides said. In addition, the plan would give $17 billion to airlines.

What the left is saying.

The left is infuriated at President Trump and the coronavirus task force, saying that the worst predictions of the virus’ damage are coming true. They have mixed feelings about the latest round of stimulus talks.

Stephen Collinson wrote that former presidents are filling the void while Trump “ignores America’s slide into a tragic winter” by urging citizens to follow public health guidance and expressing confidence in the vaccine.

“Trump's silence comes as his own White House and senior health officials issue their most frightening warnings yet,” Collinson said. “The recorded daily death toll hit a record of more than 2,600 Wednesday and 100,000 Covid-19 patients -- more than ever before -- are hospitalized as fears mount of an even worse post-Thanksgiving surge… Such warnings would have far more resonance were they coming from the lips of the most powerful man in the country -- who just demonstrated his remarkable influence over his supporters by piling up more than 70 million votes in the election. But such a message -- which would mirror the appeals of health experts and other foreign leaders -- would require the President to admit that his consistent policy of downplaying the pandemic, mocking mask use and social distancing, and declaring the crisis over was misguided and cost lives.”

In USA Today, Dr. Thomas Lew said it was time to go back to a “flatten the curve” mentality. Despite shattering the records across the county set in April, “we are getting pandemic fatigue” nine months and a quarter million deaths later.

“The strain on the health care system is real,” he wrote. “Personal protective equipment (PPE), including N95 masks, face shields and isolation gowns designed to protect hospital staff, are running short in hospitals around the country. Some nurses have to reuse their N95 masks (designed to be disposed after use) for days on end until they are practically falling apart. Nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists and custodians are literally putting their lives at risk to care for COVID-19 patients. Over 1,000 health care workers have lost their lives after exposure to the virus, and this is likely an underestimate. It is frustrating that we put our lives at risk to save the dying, but many are still in denial that the coronavirus is lethal or that public health measures are necessary.

“As cases explode, it’s not just PPE that grows short, but also the number of bodies working,” he added. “Staffing has been so strained, North Dakota even adopted a policy to let infected nurses bypass isolating and continue working.”

On the new COVID-19 proposal, The Washington Post editorial board offered a tepid endorsement.

“Substantively, it is better — much better — than nothing, which is what the 10 million who remain jobless, and the 26 million facing food insecurity, are getting now,” the board wrote. “Politically, it shows the way to yes for the negotiators, Mr. Mnuchin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and puts pressure on them to get there. Things might have been easier if Ms. Pelosi had shown more flexibility before the election; they’d be easier now if Mr. McConnell would budge from his maximum of $500 billion and if Mr. Trump would press for legislation instead of ranting about vote fraud. Cooler heads must prevail lest eight months of hard-won economic progress be allowed to unravel.”

In Jacobin Magazine, David Sirota and Julia Rock criticized Congress for pursuing liability shields, which they say will benefit corporate donors and create a “hostage situation” that predicates unemployment assistance on get-out-of-jail-free cards for corporate managers who will force people to go back to dangerous workplaces.

“With liability shields, those same employers will know that they can get away with all kinds of cost-slashing and corner-cutting that endangers workers and denies them access to basic protective gear,” they said.


What the right is saying.

Many on the right believe slowing the spread of COVID-19 is in the people’s hands, not the government’s. They’ve expressed support for the new stimulus compromise, though there is some dissent.

Holman Jenkins argued that Americans need to act without government intervention to slow the spread, and that officials across the board have worsened the toll of the pandemic.

“When a disease spreads more easily than the flu, by people with few or no symptoms, it will be ‘extremely difficult’ to contain, to use the recent admission of Anthony Fauci,” he wrote. “Our testing will be lucky to catch one case in 10, to use the estimate of CDC’s Robert Redfield during the summer surge. It was always going to fall to 330 million Americans, as it clearly has, to heed advice and do the best they can to limit the damage of a virus that can’t be controlled by officials exercising their elected powers. The fault for delaying and burying this message lies not only with President Trump saying the virus was ‘under control,’ New York Mayor Bill de Blasio saying, ‘We’ve got a long time to ramp up,’ or California Gov. Gavin Newsom saying the ‘protocols have been perfected’ (whatever that was supposed to mean).

“The truth is, most of our activities don’t require crowding together and breathing in each other’s mouths and nostrils or showering each other in spittle… There was never going to be a good outcome from Covid, but any situation can be improved,” Jenkins added. “The time-honored prophylactic for panic is actionable information. Unfortunately, in their own panic, our officials encouraged the first surge by suggesting they could control the disease, then tried to redress their error with unsustainable lockdowns. We’ve been on the seesaw ever since.”

In The Wall Street Journal, William A. Galston said Congressional leadership “should take up this bill immediately.”

“Thanks to the accelerated development of safe and effective vaccines, for which the Trump administration deserves substantial credit, there is reason to hope that the economy and society will have moved substantially toward normal by next summer,” he wrote. “The task right now is to help as many Americans as possible navigate the intervening months with their lives and livelihoods intact…

“More than 10 million Americans soon face the loss of unemployment benefits and health insurance. Millions of others face the threat of eviction from their homes in the new year. Some 26 million Americans reported not having enough to eat during the past week. In cities across the nation, lines stretch at food banks struggling to find the resources and volunteers to meet the demand… None of this is—or should be—controversial. Elected officials came together across party lines to do all these things less than nine months ago. Yes, it cost an eye-popping amount of money. But most Americans believe it was worth it. According to a recent survey, 74% of Americans, including 56% of Republicans, want Washington to do more.”

Veronique de Rugy argued that the latest bill was about “business as usual” and an attempt to “push the same old policies they always peddle.” She argued against more unemployment benefits and against bailing out airlines or Amtrak, all while saying the priorities were backward.

“Since 1975, the unemployment rate has averaged 6.3 percent — it is forecast to be 6.8 percent for November,” she wrote. “I am sorry, but extending and expanding UI — at a scale that is out of whack with past expansions — when the unemployment rate is close to the historical average is simply wrong… In addition to the fact that the economy is growing even as government spending is down and that business startups are soaring, the situation has entirely changed in the last three weeks. We now have three vaccines with what looks like high efficacy. Policymakers’ singular focus should be on getting them approved, manufactured, and distributed to health-care workers, the elderly, those with comorbidities, retail employees, teachers, Uber drivers, and others. Yet, 1.7 percent of this bill — or $16 billion according to the COVID Framework document presented this morning — is specifically about manufacturing vaccines, distribution, and testing.”


My take.

They better get something done.

I can’t imagine a world where Congress goes home, eight months of negotiations evaporate and we head into Christmas without any new plans for what’s coming in 2021. Veronique de Rugy makes plenty of good points about the encouraging signs in unemployment rates and new start-ups — but she’s falling for the same trap most political pundits do today, a trap I’ve pointed out to the point of being redundant: our traditional economic indicators do not reflect what life is like for America’s working class right now.

What do unemployment rates matter if tens of millions of the people who are employed can barely afford to feed their families? What does GDP growth matter when you’re getting paid $18,000 a year? What do a hundred thousand people going back to work matter when they have to pay for childcare because their kids can’t go to school? What do business startups soaring mean for the millions of Americans who survive in the gig economy and are about to have no gigs, no health insurance and no unemployment insurance?

In fact, de Rugy seems to inadvertently make the case for more stimulus, noting that despite a worsening pandemic, eight months of social distancing restrictions and millions of people unemployed, we still have some indicators that things are turning around. Why does she suppose that is? Perhaps it’s tied to the giant stimulus package that’s about to expire at the end of the year? Her op-ed strikes me as a case of someone trying to operate in dissent for the sake of being heterodox, without any other compelling argument.

There’s a consensus here and it’s an urgent one: we’re running full speed ahead to the edge of a cliff — on unemployment, on hunger, on student debt, on evictions, on state budget crises, on an education disaster, on overwhelmed hospitals, and on another wave of COVID-19 deaths. The government can’t and shouldn’t be expected to fix all of these problems, but it sure as hell better throw its hat in the ring. If it doesn’t, and mounting unemployment leads to less spending and more unemployment and a giant economic spiral, the cost to get out of this in six months will be exponentially higher.

I understand Pelosi not wanting to move any more — House Democrats passed a $3.4 trillion dollar bill in May. They’d be getting less than a third of that. But such a bill never had a prayer. In October, when the Problem Solvers Caucus made a $1.6 billion proposal, and President Trump was tweeting support for an even bigger new stimulus, I wrote that “Nancy Pelosi should take the $1.6 trillion bill and push it with the president’s support.” She didn’t, and Mitch McConnell continued to operate without any real pressure. Now, the offering on the table from bipartisan senators is below $1 trillion, and once again my message is the same: Pelosi and Schumer should embrace it and at least attempt to rally enough Republican support to force a vote. McConnell is facing renewed pressure from moderate senators willing to play ball with the incoming administration who can buck his leadership.

Trump is completely checked out and apparently irrelevant, totally consumed by his election loss. Pretty much the only times he has mentioned COVID-19 in the last week were to share a false claim that a Nevada doctor’s selfie proved the pandemic wasn’t as bad as people were saying and to do a victory lap because Anthony Fauci said schools should be open. I imagine he’d sign anything that came to his desk given the public’s wide support for action, and given the fact he’s supported a stimulus in the past, but he doesn’t look inclined to participate in the negotiation process even a little bit.

There are so many issues our country is facing and so many things that need to get done, but getting relief to small businesses, the unemployed and hospitals is the most urgent. This goes double for the funding that will help distribute vaccines in the spring. The next president and Congress can take on what’s on the table come January, but if this group lets the holidays come and go without any action it would be one of the greatest derelictions of duty I can imagine — and time is running out.


Your questions, answered.

Q: Trump’s presidency is almost up and I know people are already talking about him running in 2024. But do you think he will face criminal charges when he’s out of office? Or end up in jail as many liberals speculate? Do you think he should face criminal charges?

— Theresa, Nashville, Tennessee

Tangle: No, no and not really.

Look, I know a lot of people with the furthest left political inclinations would love to see Trump in an orange jumpsuit. But it’s a pipe dream — not as ridiculous as Trump promising to imprison Hillary Clinton, but not far off either.

First and most importantly, there is just absolutely no precedent for a president going to jail once his term is up. That’s not just a historical point, it’s a legal one too. Eric Posner actually had a fantastic op-ed about this in The New York Times this morning, essentially explaining that Trump’s alleged crimes in office — obstruction of justice, profiting from the presidency and pressuring a foreign leader to investigate his political opponent — would be basically impossible to prosecute once he’s out of office. Here’s how Posner puts it:

Courts tread cautiously when new legal ground is broken, worried about upsetting reasonable expectations about what the law is. And judges interpret criminal laws strictly because the defendant’s freedom is at stake. Meanwhile, the constitutional powers of the president are extremely vague and have been interpreted expansively by generations of lawyers and judges on the left and right. This combination of strictly interpreted criminal law and expansively interpreted presidential powers all but dooms prosecution of the president except when the facts and law are exceptionally clear.

Nearly every charge comes back to a simple and unfortunate reality: modern presidents have absurd, over-the-top, unchecked executive power to operate above the law — unless Congress (or the public) holds them accountable. Even the most egregious stuff, like the president taking money from foreign leaders who stay at his properties and then curry favor with him, would require explicit quid pro quos to be unveiled. What are the odds of that?

In case it’s not clear, I’m obviously not a fan of this much power concentrated in the executive branch. But realistically, it’s the system we’ve got — and the one the law recognizes.

Charges for what Trump did before he was president are a different matter, and he very well may face state charges for tax fraud or money laundering. Plenty of legal experts view that as a real possibility. But, again, Trump managed to avoid any serious criminal penalties for his financial transactions for decades before he was president. What are the odds he faces charges now?

As for what I’d want, it’s impossible to say without seeing it litigated. I certainly loathe the fact that our system is way better at prosecuting poor and middle-class people for tax crimes than ultra-wealthy people like Trump, and I’m happy any time someone with lots of money is actually held to account for their criminal behavior. I also think the president committed an egregiously awful act in his dealings with Ukraine. It’s obvious to anyone with eyes he’s profiting off the presidency. But all these things — which I despise — are different from declaring him guilty of a crime — something I certainly wouldn’t do before seeing the charges (and the evidence).

Regardless, what I think doesn’t actually matter. The law and history do. The reality is that Trump going to jail or facing serious criminal charges post-presidency is a pipe dream for the left, and I think the odds are exponentially higher that he gets re-elected in 2024 than ends up a felon.

Reminder: You can ask a question too, all you have to do is reply to this email and write in!


A story that matters.

Progressives are ramping up the pressure on Joe Biden to quickly reverse Donald Trump’s immigration policies, and they’ve found a new way to motivate him: health care workers. Thousands of foreign doctors and nurses could rush into areas overwhelmed by COVID-19 if the Biden administration can quickly reverse changes to H-1B visas that restrict where they can work, especially the 10,000 immigrant physicians who are already in the U.S. but restricted to specific areas. Another 15,000 foreign nurses are stuck in limbo because of immigration backlogs and consulate closures, according to Politico. Powerful lobbying groups in the healthcare space have joined the calls for these changes, arguing that beds and ventilator supplies are holding up but the actual availability of health care workers is not. President Trump has so far resisted any lobbying, but some believe there’s a remote chance he may relent before leaving office.


Numbers.

  • 712,000. The number of people who filed for unemployment this week.
  • 787,000. The number of people who filed for unemployment last week.
  • 30 million. The number of Americans without four-year college degrees who have the skills to move into a job that pays them 70% more than their current employer, according to a new study on upward mobility.
  • 74%. The percentage of new jobs in America requiring four-year college degrees.
  • 1 in 3. The rough estimate of how many U.S. workers above the age of 25 have four-year college degrees.
  • $38,000. The median annual salary in the U.S., according to the Labor Department, meaning anything below this is considered a “low-wage” salary.
  • $38,000 to $77,000. Salaries that the Labor Department classifies as middle-wage occupations.

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Have a nice day.

Researchers in the Amazon rainforest have made an astonishing discovery: an eight-mile stretch of rock wall that’s covered in ancient paintings. The wall is being called the “Sistine Chapel of the ancients,” and early estimates are that the art is more than 12,000 years old. Researchers came to that conclusion because of depictions of animals like the mastodon, a prehistoric relative of the elephant that’s been extinct in South America for 12,000 years. The walls are covered in tens of thousands of paintings depicting ancient humans, extinct wildlife and religious rituals.

The discovery was made a year ago but has been kept secret. The wall was hidden deep in the rainforest of Colombia and researchers only discovered it after a four-hour hike navigating the Amazon’s deadliest snakes, spiders and mammals, all while operating in territory that for decades was controlled by the Farc military guerilla unit that’s been in a 50-year-long war with the Colombian government. “When you’re there, your emotions flow … We’re talking about several tens of thousands of paintings,” José Iriarte, a lead archaeologist, said. “It’s going to take generations to record them … Every turn you do, it’s a new wall of paintings.”

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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